By REBECCA JACOBSON
Greg Rose was a kid from Vancouver Island when he first heard bagpipes.
“I was with my grandfather at the Parliament Buildings, and they had a piper there,” Rose recalled. “I just wouldn’t go. I was probably seven or eight years old. And since then I was fascinated and wanted to learn how to play.
Shortly after joining Portland Fire & Rescue in 2006, Rose began learning from a fellow firefighter. For years, he built his skills. Bagpipes are notoriously difficult, requiring careful tuning, precise coordination of movement, and physical endurance. Rose often performed with the Portland Police Highland Guard for commemorations and celebrations. Within the fire department, however, he was a lone act.
That changed in early 2019, when Rose presented her vision for a group of firefighters. Today, Portland Fire Fighters Pipes and Drums has 20 members – 11 pipers and nine drummers – from stations across the city. Representing all ranks, they meet every Wednesday evening for three and a half hours.
“It’s amazing how fast it’s going,” Rose says of the workouts. “It just passes. Most of the time, I don’t feel like I have enough time.
Since their first public performance at the VA Medical Center on Memorial Day 2021, they have played dozens of engagements, including funerals, memorial services, civic events and parades. Sometimes that means multiple events a day: Last month they played multiple tunes at a 9/11 memorial event in downtown Portland – a fireboat on the Willamette provided a display of water cannons in as an accompaniment – before heading to Oregon City for another remembrance ceremony.
Bagpipes, in one form or another, date back to ancient times. In Celtic cultures, the instrument has been a part of funerals, weddings and celebrations for centuries. The Portland Fire Group also carries on a tradition that dates back more than 150 years in this country. By the mid-19th century, anti-immigrant discrimination meant that some of the only jobs newly arrived Irish and Scottish men could find were in the fire and police departments. The work was dangerous and many died on the job. Naturally, pipes were played at their funeral. The practice stuck, and today fire and police departments in the United States (and Canada) have their own pipe and drum bands.
For Rose, the group is much more than an extracurricular activity. Although the band plays celebratory events – this year’s Grand Flower Parade was a highlight – their primary focus is to honor the dead. To perform well, Rose says, party members need to understand the seriousness of this mission.
“I would never call piping a hobby,” says Rose, who was named Portland Firefighter of the Year in 2020. “It’s a service.”
Providing such a service, Rose points out, was only possible with a collective effort. Although Rose played a key role in getting the band started – and as a piper he’s also its main musician – he insists he couldn’t have done it alone. “It’s not the Greg Rose show,” he says. “I tried to do it myself. Two or three times. It did not work.
What made the difference in 2019, Rose says, was a bigger structure. This meant, among other things, recruiting administrative support, drafting a constitution and by-laws, and gaining membership from the union, the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) Local 43. Between instruments, uniforms and instructors, the group is an expensive business. , and Rose credits union secretary-treasurer Travis Chipman with easing the way. Not only did the union facilitate loans and easy payroll deductions for band members, but it also implemented a union-wide voluntary payroll deduction to raise additional funds. According to band president Sean Fogarty, more than half of the city’s firefighters contribute. “Without the support of all our brothers and sisters in the department, we would be screwed,” says Fogarty. “There’s no way we can do that.”
Its lead instructor, Gordon Convoy, also played a crucial role in the group’s success. Raised in Scotland, Convoy started playing the bagpipes at the age of 12 and even worked for several years in a bagpipe factory in the village of Luss on Loch Lomond. A former police officer, he moved to Portland in 2012 and joined the Portland Police Highland Guard, where he met Rose. As Rose began to think more seriously about starting a band of firefighters, he knew he wanted Convoy by his side.
At Rose, Convoy saw a “hunger to learn and improve”. He also recognized her humility, her patience, her willingness to ask for support and her ability to lead by example. Although Convoy says he didn’t need a lot of conviction to join, he was clear from the start on what this company demands. “To honor the people who sacrificed themselves, and [to be there] for the families of these people, it’s a huge responsibility,” he says. “You have to commit to doing it 100%. It was one of my criteria. If they didn’t think that way, it wasn’t enough for me.
Rose was on the same page, as were the members – many of whom had never picked up an instrument or even read music – who signed up in Winter 2019. They started with practice sings , which resemble recorders and allow beginners to focus on finger positioning. For a year, they met every week. After the pandemic hit, the group paused for a while before attempting Zoom workouts (“a nightmare,” Rose says). Eventually they were able to meet regularly, including during the following winter, for outdoor practices at a member’s home in Newberg.
As the pandemic escalated, Rose often performed solo at city hospitals, settling outside the entrance and timing her sets to change shifts for nurses. In the spring of 2021, the rest of the group was ready to join him. After a private performance in a park for a fellow firefighter in the late stages of occupational cancer, the band made their first public appearance in the courtyard of the VA Medical Center on Memorial Day.
For Rose, this is just the beginning. “The most important thing for me is to create something that will go far beyond us,” he says. “It’s not about just any individual. It’s about that entity and creating something that we can push through. We’re just these spokes in a wheel, and I hope people do that in 100 years.